Nikki Haley faces tricky balancing act on Indian heritage

Associated Press/Charlie Neibergal
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to voters at a town hall campaign event on Tuesday, February 20, 2023 in Urbandale, Iowa.

When Nikki Haley announced her candidacy for president, she made sure to highlight her Indian heritage in her announcement video. But immediately after, she laid emphasis on the rejection of what she referred to as “identity politics” that she said was dividing the nation.

“I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not white. I was different,” Haley, born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to Sikh immigrants, said in her video. “My mom would always say, ‘Your job is not to focus on the differences but the similarities.’ “

Haley has a tricky balancing act ahead of her — one where she highlights the importance of her heritage, a tactic Democrats are known for employing as they push their party’s diversity, without overplaying her hand at what Republicans will often label as “identity politics.”

“Nikki is proud of her heritage and her parents are at events and she talks about her heritage … and being raised the only brown child in a Black and white world, and so she absolutely speaks to that and that’s obviously an important part of what made Nikki Haley into what she is,” said Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina GOP. 

“Her heritage — just like anybody’s heritage and upbringing and life experience and experience of their parents — is important but I’m not sure that it’s something that really has to be overplayed,” he added. 

Still, Haley’s Indian heritage has already come under the spotlight. 

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter spewed a racist tirade aimed at Haley during her appearance on “The Mark Simone Show” over the weekend.

Coulter told Haley to “go back to your own country,” and called her a “creature,” before she attacked religions like Hinduism, one of the most practiced religions in Asia.

“This is devastating, especially for the Asian conservatives,” said Cliff Zhonggang Li, executive director for the National Committee of Asian American Republicans.

“We were stepped on by the same party, same members … more than by the other side, unfortunately,” he added. “This is something I think the Republicans really need to look into. Otherwise, you can keep wondering why East Asian or South Asians are so Democratic.”

In an August 2022 Pew Research Center survey, 57 percent of English-speaking Asian registered voters said they would likely back the Democratic candidate in their U.S. House of Representatives district race, while 26 percent said they would likely support the Republican candidate. 

In 2022, only about half of all registered Asian American voters said they were contacted by either of the major parties, according to data from Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. 

Among national origin groups, Indian Americans were also the most likely to say they would vote for Democratic candidates. 

But Haley, the first woman and first person of color elected as governor of South Carolina, has spent much of her political career distancing herself from her Indian heritage — including registering as white on her voter registration card, according to The Post and Courier, and converting from Sikhism to Christianity long before she began her career in politics.

Haley, not for the first time, is coming under scrutiny by some observers who criticize her handling of her Indian heritage.  

“By using her identity to claim she is evidence of the ‘American Dream,’ Haley perpetuates both the ‘model minority’ myth and the myth of meritocracy, where she effectively gaslights and delegitimizes the oppression of Black and Brown Americans,” said Hajar Yazdiha, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. “As a public, we should be skeptical of politicians across the board who build their power by maintaining white supremacy.” 

Critics say Haley’s use of her Indian American identity is a clear case of strategic identity deployment, where she deploys a very selective, symbolic version of her ethnic identity to reach wider audiences.

Neil Makhija, executive director of Indian American Impact, a South Asian civic organization, said that Haley’s comments in her speech were aimed at “the overwhelming base of Republicans right now” whom he said generally back Trump and are part of the white working class.

“She’s not really speaking to people of color communities that have been historically excluded,” Makhija said. 

“I think Indian Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic and in their views and inclusive on issues like immigration and civil rights,” he added. “While I think there are parts of Nikki Haley’s personal story that could initially be relatable … I think she will have a hard time reaching the masses of Indian Americans, although, you know, I’m sure there will be some supporters here and there.”

Even before her 2024 announcement, Haley had to contend with critics who accused her of hiding or downplaying her heritage. In September, “The View’s” Sunny Hostin questioned why Haley went by her middle name, Nikki, instead of Nimrata.

“There are some of us that can be chameleons and decide not to embrace our ethnicities so that we can pass, so that we don’t have to go by,” Hostin, who is Black and Latina, said on the popular talk show.

Haley promptly fired back.

“It’s racist of you to judge my name,” the ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former Republican governor of South Carolina said, tagging Hostin. “Nikki is an Indian name and is on my birth certificate—and I’m proud of that. What’s sad is the left’s hypocrisy towards conservative minorities. By the way, last I checked Sunny isn’t your birth name.”

Haley’s campaign did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment. 

Haley also joins another prominent female politician of South Asian heritage on the political stage: Vice President Harris. 

Like Haley, Harris doesn’t often speak to her heritage, focusing more on her identity as a Black woman. Yazdiha, the assistant professor at USC, said unlike Harris, a “racialized” individual in American politics, Haley is able “to pick and choose when she wants to claim her ethnic identity.”

“The reality is that studies show how white supremacy and anti-Blackness shape every domain in our society, particularly our political system and how nonwhite people maneuver within it. In this way, Haley is not rejecting identity politics. She is simply claiming her side within it, and she has chosen the side whose politics preserves white supremacy,” she said.

Putting partisan politics aside, Li, of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, said many Asian Americans would like to see both Haley and Harris speak to their Indian heritage more often. 

“They need to emphasize that … to certainly help more Asian Americans get more into politics, because we are not as active as in other communities,” Li said. “We would like to see them come to the community more, be a better role model.”

Regardless of their commitment to their identities, Li said, strong Asian American candidates have a “tremendous impact” on those communities.

Julia Manchester contributed to this article.

Updated at 10:59 a.m.

Tags Identity politics Nikki Haley Race

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video